Category Archives: Voting


Get Government Out of Political Parties: How to Resolve the Primary-Caucus Debate

Imagine there’s no party on government ballots; it’s easy if you can (with apologies to Lennon).

Right now in Colorado and elsewhere in the nation, we are debating whether to use a caucus system (based on local meetings and assemblies) or a primary system (based on mailed ballots) to assign Republicans and Democrats to general-election ballots for various government offices. (Right now in Colorado we use a combination of systems for many offices, and we use a caucus system to select national delegates to the Republican national convention. By separate laws, third parties assign candidates at their conventions.)

Colorado’s caucus system exploded in controversy after Ted Cruz won all of the state’s delegates at the April 9 Republican state convention. Although Colorado Republicans elected delegates to the national convention exactly the same way as last time, Donald Trump played on widespread confusion about a cancelled, non-binding preference poll at caucus to claim that the system is “rigged” and that it “disenfranchised” people.

Having participated in the Republican caucus system, I saw how grass-roots it really is—it begins with neighborhood meetings where local Republicans get together to discuss politics, conduct party business, and select delegates to various assemblies. I think there’s a great deal of value to the caucus system that isn’t obvious to people who don’t participate in it (and even to some who do). That said, I also had some sympathy with arguments for moving to a primary system closed to party voters that splits delegates proportionally.

But then I started thinking, why is government involved in political parties in the first place? When government places a candidate’s party affiliation on a ballot, it thereby sanctions and helps to entrench today’s two major parties. And primary elections are funded by taxpayers. How is it moral to force people who disapprove of the parties (or of voting generally) to pay for the process of selecting Republican and Democratic candidates for the general ballot? Answer: It isn’t.

What got me thinking along these lines was a remark by the great Colorado political analyst Peter Blake, who reminds us, “Parties, as the Supreme Court has affirmed numerous times, are private organizations.”

But are they really? When government lists parties on ballots and pays for systems of selecting a party’s candidates, political parties in reality are not purely private; they are instead quasi-governmental entities. And that ambiguous status generates all kinds of problems.

The reason that Trump’s claims of “disenfranchisement” seem plausible to many people is that many people see today’s two major parties as de facto arms of the government. If the Republican Party is part of the government, then it makes sense that it should follow “enfranchisement” rules appropriate to government.

On the other hand, if the Republican Party is truly a private organization, then it makes sense for the party to select candidates in a way best suited to the party’s goals (and I think a caucus system is best for that). For comparison, if you join the Catholic Church, you don’t think you’re “disenfranchised” because you don’t get to vote directly for the next Pope. You just understand that the church has a longstanding (and very elitist) selection process for that.

By way of background, this is the first year that I participated in the Republican caucus system. Before registering Republican late last year, I was an unaffiliated voter for many years. Before that, I was very active in the Libertarian Party of Colorado; I even ran for state representative once. At the time, I appreciated the easy access that Libertarians had to the ballot. Now I think it’s absurdly easy for third parties to place candidates on the ballot relative to the major parties and to independent candidates. All third parties have to do in Colorado is hold a convention where members of the party select candidates to appear on the ballot. So I’ve been aware of some of the oddities of Colorado’s candidate selection process for some time.

We Coloradans had a bizarre election for governor in 2010 that illustrates some of the problems with existing election laws. That year, Tom Tancredo, formerly a Republican member of Congress, ran with the American Constitution Party. He did so well that his new party gained “major party” status—which was quite ridiculous.

Given the many problems of government involvement in political parties, here is what I now propose: Government should set simple rules for a candidate to get on the general-election ballot (presumably based on petition requirements); these rules should apply the same to everyone, regardless of party; and government should not be involved with promoting a party or selecting its candidates in any way.

Let me spin a hypothetical case to make clear what I’m talking about. Let’s say government at all levels requires that petitions for candidates be submitted by September 1 of an election year. Anyone may get on the ballot, without party affiliation listed, by meeting the petition requirements. A political party, as a truly private organization, may select its favored candidates however it wants. Indeed, any private organization could select its favored candidates however it wants.

Let’s say Alan Albertson, Barty Bernardo, and Chad Cox want to run as Republicans for U.S. Senate. They would join the Republican Party, and that party would institute a selection mechanism (such as a caucus and convention) to pick its candidate. Let’s say Alan Albertson wins the Republican contest. Then Alan would get the petitions to be on the general-election ballot. But couldn’t Barty and Chad also petition onto the ballot? Yes, they could. Presumably, the Republican Party in that scenario would have an honor system by which candidates pledged to petition onto the ballot only if they became their party’s official designee.

Let’s say that Barty promises not to petition onto the ballot if the Republicans consider backing him and he loses, but that he’s a lying bastard. Barty loses the Republican contest, then petitions onto the ballot anyway. This would simply be none of the government’s business. Voters could choose whether to sign petitions placing Barty on the ballot and whether to vote for Barty in the general election.

So where do parties come in, then, if they are not listed on the ballot for the general election? Presumably, parties would simply distribute and publicize slates of their candidates. For example, the Republican Party would send out a list of its selected candidates for the various offices in contention. A voter could then vote according to the Republican Party’s slate—or not.

In short, what I am calling for is the separation of party and state. I think it makes no more sense for government to list “Republican” on a general-election ballot than it does for government to list “Catholic” or “Mormon” on a ballot. Tracking a person’s private affiliations is simply none of the government’s legitimate business.

Incidentally, I’m pretty sure that the system I describe is close to how politics actually was done long ago, but I don’t know that history. (That would make an interesting topic for a future article.)

Another detail: I very much support approval voting to handle elections in which more than two candidates run. Approval voting basically means that voters can vote for as many candidates as they want. So if two similar candidates appear on the ballot, voters could select both, thereby reducing the chance of splitting their votes and electing a less-popular candidate. The candidate with the most votes overall wins. (Ranked voting achieves a similar outcome, but it’s harder to implement.)

Although I very much enjoyed the Republican caucus process this year, something about the way that candidates end up on a general-election ballot has been bothering me. Now I think I know what it is—the inappropriate collusion of government and political parties. I think my proposal—to separate political parties from government—is the only morally and practically defensible move.

April 18 Update: Yesterday I posted the following remarks to Facebook; they reflect my latest thinking about caucuses, primaries, and the problems with government collusion with parties:

Thank you to those who have helped me clarify my thinking about these issues. Again, I think the fundamental is that government ought not collude with political parties, and such collusion is the key problem in this context.

Unfortunately, it looks likely that government soon will force the political parties to allow non-members to help select (some of) their candidates, by my lights the worst possible outcome and a grotesque violation of rights of association (which Republicans seem to occasionally defend).

In the context of political parties restored as (fully) private organizations, should they use a caucus or a primary system? It occurred to me that either system could use local meetings, mailed ballots, or some combination of those things (which I think would be the way to go). So the key difference is whether all members get to vote directly for all party offices and candidates, or whether they get to vote on delegates to choose (some or all of) those offices and candidates.

I still think the caucus is the best way to handle the process, because a caucus system creates a first-level, easy-access stage of activist. To run as a delegate (to assemblies), a person has to make an effort to win the support of neighbors. This necessarily encourages neighbors who are party members (who want to get involved) to get to know each other very well. Much of that dynamic is lost in a primary; there’s no built-in incentive to get to know other activists in your area.

That said, I think if a party used a primary system, it could compensate pretty well in terms of developing activists by holding local events.

So I end up where I began: It doesn’t really matter too much whether a party uses a caucus or a primary system. What really matters is that government not force parties to conduct business one way or another. Unfortunately, most Republicans seem perfectly content with government micromanaging and subsidizing private organizations, at least when they are political parties.

· Setting the Record Straight about Colorado’s Republican Caucus
· BREAKING: Jim Hoft Flubs Story about “Deny Trump” Flyer
· Atwood Pitches Approval Voting

Image: Ari’s photo of the Jefferson County, Colorado, Republican convention on March 19, 2016

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Primaries Rob Conventions of Meaning

I agree wholeheartedly that government should not be involved in or fund political party processes, but I would go further and state that the primary system specifically and the caucus system more generally rob the convention process of any real meaning.

Once upon a time, local and state parties caucused about policy more than candidates. Each state party selected delegates to represent their beliefs at the national convention. That is why the national conventions used to spend so much time debating and voting on platform planks. Then, and only then, once they had decided what they stood for this time around, did they select national candidates to promote and, hopefully, enact that platform.

Today, thanks to the primary system, the national candidates are usually a foregone conclusion by the time the convention rolls around. The convention is a media event and nothing more. The delegates will still spend time fussing over the platform, but it is mostly a useless exercise – the platform that gets enacted will be the candidate’s platform, not the convention’s, because the cart is now squarely in front of the horse and the candidate owes little to the delegates.

Good luck fixing this, though.

—John K. Berntson


Setting the Record Straight about Colorado’s Republican Caucus

“All Colorado Republicans [registered more than a month] could vote in precinct caucuses, which chose delegates to congressional and state conventions, who voted for national delegates.” That’s my (unabbreviated) Tweet summarizing the way that Colorado Republicans chose delegates to the national Republican Convention. I should know; as a Colorado Republican I participated in the caucuses.

But apparently, for some Trump supporters, my experience participating in the caucus process is no match for a Drudge headline claiming it never happened. As of the evening of April 10, Drudge claimed on its main page, “Fury as Colorado has no primary or caucus; Cruz celebrates voterless victory.”

So let’s set the facts straight, beginning with my own experiences with the caucus system.

After long being an unaffiliated voter, I registered as a Republican voter late last year, in part so that I could participate in Colorado’s Republican caucus system this year. (I plan to remain a Republican, barring an unforeseen major shift in the political scene.) I looked up how to participate in my precinct caucus on March 1, showed up, participated in the meeting, and successfully ran as an alternate delegate to the county convention on March 19 and to the state convention on April 9.

Interestingly, in my precinct, I’m pretty sure that not a single person had participated in the caucus system before. We were all “outsiders.” We even had to ask one of the party organizers to step in for a while to help us figure out the process. But we worked it out and got along fine. We even had a very civil discussion about the presidential candidates; one fellow was strongly for Trump, while several of us were strongly against him. (I only know the views of those who expressed them.)

At the precinct caucus, a number of people—both Cruz supporters and Trump supporters—complained that Colorado did not have a “straw poll” for president this year. Indeed, my precinct voted on a resolution saying we want a binding vote by all members in the future. I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who voted against that resolution, on the grounds that we should further evaluate the pros and cons of the caucus system versus a primary or other system. I’m still not sure which is better (and frankly I don’t think it matters very much). I think the caucus system works pretty well and that there are some good reasons to keep it. (For what it’s worth, Justin Everett, a state legislator, favors it.)

That said, a lot of people seem to have some pretty wild misundertandings about what happened with the straw poll. So I’ll do my best to summarize what happened. In previous years, Colorado Republicans held a non-binding straw poll at the precinct caucuses. This had nothing to do with the selection of delegates to the national Republican convention, but it expressed the preference of those Republicans who attended their caucuses.

But, for this year, the national party (for reasons unknown to me) said that we could not have a non-binding poll; if we had a poll it had to be binding. So the state party decided not to have a poll at all. People are welcome to read the explanation for all this by Steve House, the state chair of the GOP (who, incidentally, won his position as an “outsider” who unseated the prior “establishment” chair). For what it’s worth, I think House’s reasons for dropping the poll are pretty good ones.

Anyway, without the non-binding poll—which didn’t actually select any delegates—Colorado Republicans selected delegates to the national convention the same way they have before, through the caucus system. Incidentally, according to Wikipedia, Colorado’s caucus system was first instituted in 1912 “as a way to limit the power of party bosses and to attract more grassroots involvement,” then replaced by a primary in 1992, then restored in 2002 through 2004.

Unsurprisingly, John Frank’s articles about all this for the Denver Post are sensationalistic, designed more to inflame people and to draw eyes to the paper’s web site than to enlighten readers with the relevant facts put in context. (I think it’s a little humorous how many of Trump’s supporters totally mistrust the media—except when it spins things their way.)

A completely fair headline of what happened this year would have been, “Colorado Republicans Select Presidential Delegates the Same Way They Did Last Time.” But the reality of the situation is so much more boring than the trumped up version of it.

To return to my experiences with the caucuses: The woman elected in my precinct as a delegate to the state convention ran on an explicitly anti-Trump platform. She made this very clear, and she was elected by the rest of us with this understanding. Claims that the rest of us were somehow “disenfranchised” are ridiculous; we all got to vote for delegates, and everyone in the room had a chance to run to become a delegate (most didn’t want to). It truly was a grass-roots process. I was elected as the alternate delegate to the state convention, also on an explicitly anti-Trump platform.

The simple fact is that the Republicans at my precinct caucus mostly disfavored Trump, and evidently that is true of most other precincts as well. Trump lost in Colorado because he’s just not very popular here.

Indeed, some Cruz supporters I talked with wanted a binding poll precisely so that Coloradans could send the strongest possible anti-Trump message. I strongly suspect that a primary would have resulted in a Cruz victory, but I’m not aware of good polling data on this.

Should Colorado give up the caucuses in the future? As noted, I’m not totally sure, but I’d like to rebut one reason for saying we should. The claim basically is that, because people have to attend a meeting and then select delegates to conventions, who then select national delegates, the caucuses are not sufficiently democratic.

It is true that, to participate in the caucuses, you have to do more than mark an “x” on a piece of paper. You actually have to (gasp!) go to a meeting. If you want to become a delegate to a congressional or state convention, where national delegates are picked, you actually have to stand up and make your case to your fellow Republican voters (and pay a convention fee). I’m not convinced this is a problem. Arguably, it is a feature, not a bug.

Many Trump supporters seem shocked to learn that American government is primarily representative in nature, not a direct democracy. Have they never heard of the electoral college? The Founders were very careful to create levels of representation; indeed, it is part of the checks and balances of constitutionalism. All we do in Colorado is keep an extra layer of representation in the process; we choose state delegates who then chose national delegates. One can argue that the caucus system is not ideal for whatever reason, but the fact that it is based on the representative model of government isn’t by itself a very good reason to oppose it.

For pointing out some of the basic facts about Colorado’s caucus system on Twitter, I was deluged by comments from Trump’s supporters, consisting mostly of insults, threats, and wild conspiracies. (For example, some people blamed me personally for the lack of a straw poll, even though I wasn’t even a Republican when that decision was made.) It turns out that such tactics don’t actually improve my opinion of Trump as a presidential candidate.

I’m glad I participated in Colorado’s Republican caucus system. From what I saw, it worked well. I’ll take this opportunity to thank the many volunteers who worked tirelessly to help organize and run the caucuses and conventions and the many thousands of Colorado voters who participated in the process. They are everyday heroes who take seriously their responsibility to participate in American governance.

Update 1: A fellow named Larry Lindsey claims that he was not allowed to vote at the state GOP convention because he was a Trump supporter. His claims seem to be fabricated in whole or in part. I was there, and I saw a number of Trump supporters in attendance. They participated just like everyone else did. They just didn’t have enough support to win delegates. Also see a media release from Douglas County Republicans about Lindsey. On further review: I’ve read the Douglas County rules, and apparently delegates to the state assembly are “nominated” at the precinct caucuses but elected at county assemblies. Lindsey did not attend the county assembly, so he was not elected as a delegate. Different counties have different rules; for example, in my county, Jefferson, we elected delegates to state directly from precinct caucuses. See also Mollie Hemingway’s write-up about Lindsey in the Federalist.

Update 2: I went on CNN for a few minutes to explain the basics of Colorado’s caucus process. I want to clarify one point: Moving from a non-binding preference poll to no poll did not affect how national delegates are selected. Obviously moving to a hypothetical binding poll would affect that. At this point I lean in favor of keeping the caucus system but adding a binding poll to it (as opposed to moving to a primary system). There are pros and cons to caucuses and to primaries; to me the biggest advantage of caucuses is that Republicans in a neighborhood actually have a chance to meet and talk about the direction they want their party to take. That is totally lost with a primary system. April 16 Update: Now I think I actually favor a non-binding poll so that people take the selection process of delegates seriously.

Update 3: For more discussion about this issue, I suggest articles at the Federalist and Conservative Review and Mark Levin’s interview with Ken Buck and further discussion (which mentions this article). See also Peter Blake’s interesting article about the history of the caucuses and arguments for changing them.

Update 4: For other accounts of Colorado caucus participants, see write-ups by Laura Carno and Pundit Pete.

Update 5: See also a short clip of my interview with Dana Loesch and my radio interview with Vince Coakley.

Update 6: It is true that one of Trump’s alternate delegates was left off of the ballot at the state convention. I believe this was an unintentional typo, and at any rate it did not affect the outcome in the slightest. NBC reports, “One Trump alternate, Jerome Parks, was not on the numbers-only ballot at #379 — instead the ballot listed #378 twice.” Trump’s own campaign team made more significant errors in publishing its slate of delegates, as NBC relates.

Update 7: In an email, State Senator Laura Woods (who represents my area), aptly summarized the essential value of the caucus system: “My biggest concern about switching away from the caucus system is this:  when voters show up at caucus, they engage with the county party, and they become block workers, volunteers, precinct committee people, district captains, etc. They also are voted on to represent their precinct at the County, Congressional and State Assemblies.”

Update 8: It’s pretty amazing to me how many Trump supporters call Colorado’s system unfair because it’s not perfectly representative of voters, even as they ignore the many ways that Trump benefits from other states’ systems because they are not perfectly representative. As I Tweeted, “Isn’t it funny how Trump never complained about the ‘undemocratic’ result when he got 100% of Florida’s delegates with 46% of the votes?” FiveThirtyEight has more on this.

Update 9: See also my follow-up pieces,”Get Government Out of Political Parties: How to Resolve the Primary-Caucus Debate” and “Jim Hoft Flubs Story about ‘Deny Trump’ Flyer.”

Update 10 (April 27): On April 23 Dave Levine had me on his radio show (1490 KMET) to further discuss Colorado’s Republican caucus.

· Reflections on the Presidential Race after Super Tuesday
· Ted Cruz’s Remarkable Nod to the Separation of Church and State
· The Needed Political Realignment

Image: Ari’s photo of the Colorado Republican Convention, April 9, 2016

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Some Colorado Counties Had Informal Straw Polls

Thanks for your good article. I have one clarification for you and your readers: each county handled the straw poll differently. In Adams County, we had a straw poll which of course was non binding and it had nothing to do with choosing delegates. We had Trump supporters, Cruz supporters and others too. The caucus system worked really well even though most people there were new to the process.

It was a lively (and friendly) atmosphere for the most part and it was great to have engaged voters in their local precincts participate equally regardless of whom they supported.


Not All Can Attend Caucus Meetings

So I work 3PM-11PM in surgery at one of the main hospitals in Denver. I cannot take off work to go to a meeting. I guess my voice does not matter, I just need to be there in case someone you love gets hurt or injured? I will write in Trump once Cruz is shown to just be a puppet to get Rubio, Ryan, etc. as the nominee. Once this election is done I will never vote republican again. I have been R all my life casting my first vote for Reagan in 1980. Hopefully you all will learn not to disregard what the people want, if not have fun with Hillary, who is easily going to stomp anyone the RNC “chooses” over what the voters want.

—Richard Hutson

Ari Armstrong replies: To my mind, the fact that a lot of people have trouble attending the caucus meeting undergirds the strongest criticism of it. However, I would point out that it would be possible to add a binding or non-binding straw poll back to the caucus system, and extend this to absentee voters. Also, I find it a little humorous how many people assume I’m some sort of puppet-master within the Republican Party, even though I just (re)joined it a few months ago.

Biased against Trump

The whole caucus thing is new to me, having spent the first 40 years of my life in California. On primary day, we vote and delegates are awarded. Then I discovered the absentee ballot, which I mailed in two or three weeks before election day, and I never had to bother myself with standing in line or trying to find someone’s garage/polling station.

For a number of reasons, including my reluctance to publicly state my voting preference for professional reasons, I haven’t been to a caucus. It just doesn’t make sense, especially in a country that has embraced the secret ballot for a couple of centuries.

The elimination of a popular vote—”straw poll,” if you insist, but it’s an actual popular vote—made the process even more mysterious. I again chose not to participate, partly because of a prior commitment that night but also because I didn’t want to spend two or three hours merely casting a vote.

It’s clear to me that the party leadership in Colorado saw this as an opportunity to prevent Donald Trump from collecting delegates for the national convention. Instead, actual voters should have had the opportunity to see to that. We in the Republican Party talk a lot about trusting the people. We could and should have done that this year, complete with a secret ballot.


Ari Armstrong replies: Although many of Trump’s supporters are quick to point to conspiracy theories to “explain” the results, I’ve seen no actual evidence that Colorado party leaders made any effort to bias the results one way or another. Notably, Trump’s own supporters in party leadership joined in voting to suspend the straw poll. I absolutely think that, if there had been a non-binding poll again at caucus, Cruz would have won by a landslide. So I think it’s too bad we didn’t have one. Anyway, you certainly wouldn’t have had to drive for two hours to attend your local precinct caucus; those are highly regional. The various conventions are another matter, of course; I had to get up at 5:00 am to make it from the Denver area to Colorado Springs on time for the state convention.

Political Parties are Private Organizations

The Colorado GOP is a private entity. Not public. Therefore, they get to make whatever rules they want.

—Dave Barnes

What About the Fee?

In this post Ari Armstrong said that if you want to be selected as a delegate you must pay a convention fee.

Is this legal? Having to pay to vote?


Ari Armstrong replies: See the comment above; political parties are private organizations. The fee goes toward funding the conventions, as is appropriate. However, I do think the GOP should have a “need” exemption for the fee.

What About the People?

I will make this more simple than your explanation of Colorado’s republican caucus. For most Americans the system you have in place is far too complicated. Most Americans don’t care nor understand the delegate process. The delegate system takes the voice of average American citizens away from outcomes that will effect their lives. Indeed the system is legal and was supported by you and your fellow caucus members/supporters. That said, I bet if you did “another pole” in Colorado or any state for that matter and asked the public this question, “If you were given a choice to vote for a candidate to represent your party for POTUS or let a small, very small group of people vote for you” you would find no support for the caucus. People want a vote. Should anyone or any group be allowed to decide for the masses? In my humble opinion, I think not. I have a funny feeling this system will be changed soon, maybe not soon enough though. I am a proud Republican but I’m loosing faith in our party by the day.

—D. Holmes

Ari Armstrong replies: For one thing, private organizations have no inherent moral or legal obligation to operate by pure democracy. For another, the Founders were extremely skeptical of pure democracy, which is why they instituted many checks to it. Whoever does not wish to participate in the Republican Party (or any other party) is free not to.

Many Trump Supporters Didn’t Show Up

Thank you for your well written article about your personal experience of the Colorado Caucus system this year. I too, went to my precinct caucus, and was elected as a county delegate and as an alternate to the state. It was my first time investing this much time & energy and Saturday was a long 12 hour day and although some alternates in my county got to vote, I did not. I did not feel cheated, but I was ready to vote for the Cruz slate if I had the opportunity. At my precinct caucus I was one of only 3 people who showed (out of about 200 registered republicans). All 3 of us were Cruz supporters. Not sure where all the Trump supporters were, but they had an equal & fair chance to show up, but did not. Anyways, thanks again for taking the time to write honestly about your experience and accurately about our state’s caucus system.


Caucuses Are Too Indirect

Your article correctly outlines the process and I have no hidden agenda with either of the remaining GOP presidential candidates. However, I do have a problem with the GOP primary process, in Colorado.

Here you vote for a delegate, who votes for a delegate, who is supposed to cast a vote for a candidate. It’s too indirect of a process, designed to keep the existing structure in place. It not only discourages change, in actively inhibits it. I’d like for the Colorado GOP to go to a proportional primary, where a candidate who gets 40% of the vote gets 40% of the delegates.

As it is, the existing power brokers will remain in power, the Colorado GOP will continue to slot moderate candidates wherever possible and the conservative citizens of Colorado will feel disenfranchised and unrepresented. The Colorado GOP will lose it’s base and eventually just be part of the Democratic party.

I can’t wait. Then a party that represents its members (instead of a party that dictates to its members) will evolve, to take the GOP’s place.


Don’t Complain If You Don’t Get Involved

Thank you for the first-hand account of how Colorado’s process works. I find it’s usually the people too lazy to get involved in the process who complain the loudest. If you don’t like the rules, get involved and work to change them.

—Melody Warbington

Cruz Had the Support at Caucus

Thanks Mr. Armstrong. This is great! I sent Drudge a message earlier and may forward him this link too. As a pro Cruz person I was sent to the county assembly. Everyone there from my district who wanted to attend the state convention was approved. 9 delegates and 9 alternates. 18 people volunteered. The Cruz supporters won the delegate slots and the few Trump supporters there were won the alternate slots. It was all very reasonable and involved at the local level and I too truly thanks those who involve themselves time after time with these details.

—Terri Goon

Feigned Outrage Over Results

Ari Armstrong, thank you for a calm and clear explanation in defense of our CO grassroots voice!

Hopefully, your detailed and patient explanation may put to rest some of the honest misconceptions. I’m a bit too cynical to believe there aren’t many who will prefer to ignore the truth because whining and feigned outrage suits their purpose best.

—Denise E. Denny

Respect the Process

Thanks for writing about your experiences. I went to the Nevada caucuses and found it a good experience too. The fact that Trumpsters can’t respect a legitimate process says a lot about them and their candidate.

—Jess Solomon

Caucus Participant Is No Insider

Ari, well written.Your experience was similar to mine and my feelings about caucus vs primary are similar to yours. I was also a delegate to the CD assembly and thought that process went better than expected. I also am no insider. Last time I was elected to represent our precinct was in 1996.

—Doug Drees

Hold a Vote of the People

I think you did a good job of explaining what goes one. I will always think that a vote of people should be held and the numbers speak for themselves. A lot of people will take time to go to the booth. Going through the caucus system myself I still would rather see a Vote of the People.

You did a good job.

—Douglas Rushing

Cruz Had Support at Caucus

I similarly went to the republican caucus this year. There were maybe twenty-five or so people there. You’re completely right in that there were a majority of Cruz supporters there. In the end, we had an informal, non-reported straw poll and it was something like twenty Cruz to four Rubio and one Trump. The two delegates we sent to state were for Cruz and Rubio. The Trump supporter voted for themself, and the wishy-washy-whatever-the-room-wants establishment guy didn’t win. There were plenty of new people, but I recognized at least eight people from four years ago.

—Kazriko Redclaw

Trump Backed Out of Convention

Thanks for making this so clear. I agree with you 100%. I had similar caucus experience and ended up at state. Trump was coming to the convention, then backed out. I didn’t get one mailing from a Trump supporter. Seems he and his people want to be bottle fed and do no work. I’ve been called names too. People are so childish. Thanks again for a well thought out article.

—Theresa Sorenson

Most People Didn’t Attend the Caucuses

You’re wrong on a few points. Number one, most people didn’t show up to caucus. In my precinct (446) we had forty out of how many thousands? Ours is one of the larger in El Paso county as we had 10 delegates for county and 3 for state. How can 40 people represent the will of the people in a large precinct?

Which brings me to the second point in that as a delegate your vote is not who you prefer, but rather who the people prefer. Most delegates, including you apparently, don’t understand that and had picked “their guy” long before the caucus. In my precinct it was pretty much equally divided between Cruz and Trump with one for the third guy with only forty people. If this is at all representative of the other precincts your assertion that Trump just isn’t popular in Colorado is totally speculative. Lastly, as a delegate that was actually at the State Assembly and El Paso County I can say it seemed there was again equally divided support for both Cruz and Trump on the floor with a very small group for the third candidate.

—Mark Whitaker

Ari Armstrong replies: I think registered Republicans in a precinct tend to number in the hundreds. The delegate in my precinct was elected explicitly on her anti-Trump platform. I similarly make my preferences quite clear, and was voted in. Obviously Trump did not have nearly the support that Cruz did at the state convention.

Trump Didn’t Campaign in Colorado

My experience as well in my district caucus—we did take a poll informing our elected delegates of who our preferences were. In our poll Cruz was number one, Tramp two. Ben Carson received one vote I think. The fact that Trump did not even campaign in Colorado, instead relying upon staying in New York in a state where he’s heavily favored, I just don’t understand how he expects to receive support in Colorado.

—Bruce F. St. Peter

Primaries Don’t Handle Large Fields Well

Thanks for your article! I have been a Sate Delegate in Utah. It is frustrating how many people don’t take part in the process, then complain when the don’t understand how it works. Could you imagine what a mess a regular primary single election would be like if we had sixteen candidates to choose from? The process we have helps cut down the field and still give everyone a chance. This year is a good example. Trump and his supporters brag about all their votes, yet still can’t get past 37%. That isn’t that popular. If it were just between Cruz and Trump from the beginning, my guess is Cruz would be winning. Therefore if he comes out the winner at the convention, then the voice of the people will have been heard.

—Stan Jackson

Media Fed False Narrative about Poll; County Organizers Miraculous

Thanks, Ari, excellent summary.

This was my fourth State Assembly. Your experience sounds much like mine. I was elected to State at Precinct 231, favoring Rubio. (As if this isn’t complicated enough, El Paso County pushes election to State and CD down to the precinct level, bypassing County.)

We had two slots for State and two for [congressional district] CD5. Cruz supporters won three, and then there was me, a couple Cruzers defected to me out of sympathy, because I served as Chair when nobody else at all wanted the job, and felt I should be rewarded. At the end of the evening, we broke with the “no straw poll” rule and held our own private straw poll which we did not report—nine for Cruz, eight Rubio, four Carson, four Trump, one not voting. Only one of the Trump people wanted to go to State or CD, but he only got four votes.

I was disappointed with the turnout; it was lower than previous Presidential years, by half or even less (I was a Newt guy last time). Prior to the Caucus, there were many, many people saying “haven’t you heard? Caucus doesn’t matter this time, there’s no poll. I had to correct dozens of people before March 1st. The Trump supporters were the most adamant that there was no reason to go to caucus, so sad. I blame the press for this, I’m so glad you actually got to CNN. I must have spent a dozen hours in the last six weeks trying to break into “Journalism World” and clarify the boatload of falsehoods and half-truths bandied about by the people who should be informing us and striving for accuracy. Such an incredibly frustrating experience. Some people lost faith in politics in the last couple months, I lost faith in the seriousness of American journalism.

Part of the problem we have in Colorado is that a primary election has to be conducted by the State with tax dollars. The caucus/precinct system is (miraculously) funded by the poverty-stricken party. All the spending regulations come down very, very hard on the Parties. It’s impossible to keep money out of politics, money will find its way, but perversely, donors are very limited by law in how much they can give to candidates’ campaigns and especially to the parties. Therefore the Super-Pacs, they are the only place to which money can freely flow.

El Paso County contains 31% of Colorado’s registered Republicans, but has 1.5 paid employees (and my gosh, the paperwork is enormous). The office looks almost like a struggling body shop. That they can pull this off with volunteers at all is nothing short of miraculous. They are “the establishment,” the despised, the sometimes hated, it really bothers me to hear all this abuse. Why was I Chair? Because I was at GOP HQ for a small open meeting with Senate candidate Darryl Glenn, and was persuaded by someone to put my name on a party “volunteer list.” A few months later they called and begged me to chair the Caucus, as the previous Precinct Leaders had moved out of state. They did not know who I supported, they did not ask, for all they knew, I was a Communist three-headed purple hippopotamus. They just begged “please, please help us out, you’re on the list, we have so many spots to fill.”

Thanks for making things more clear for people, the current system is certainly too complicated, I would like to see a more streamlined caucus. And better communication, from the party and from the press.

—Phil Beckman

Republican National Committee Out to Get Trump

Hi, thanks for a very informative and even-handed explanation of the Colorado system. I have been following the various primaries and caucuses and was curious about what had happened in Colorado. The only thing I would say is in fairness to Trump and his supporters, even if everything in Colorado was completely fair and above-board, they have plenty of reason to mistrust the party and the media. The RNC has been out to get them since day one. There hasn’t even been any secret about it. That sort of thing breeds the mistrust you are hearing now from the Trump supporters.

—Lou Filliger

Have a Vote of the People

The long meetings (I’ve heard between two to three hours just at the precinct level) are unpalatable to the average voter imho. I don’t think that means they shouldn’t get a vote. I also don’t see the comparison between the electoral college and Colorado’s current selection process. There are typically two candidate to vote for in a presidential election (regardless of who the actual electors are), not six-hundred people whom you know nothing about. As far as I know, there’s nothing that compares to “an unpledged delegate” in the presidential election. We don’t really vote for delegates in the national election (I understand that the electors’ names are on some ballot, but it’s just a name—we’re voting for the candidate) so I don’t get why the primaries would be any different. Seems like something to bring before all the people of Colorado for a vote at the next election—that’s seems like a “We the people” kind of thing to do.


Ari Armstrong replies: Actually, in the general election, you’re “really” voting for members of the electoral college. My point about the electoral college is that politics in America is not, and never has been, about direct democracy. This is even more true for parties, which are private organizations. Participants in the caucus process have every opportunity to learn the views of the people they’re selecting to represent them.

Washington State Politics Is Complex

First off, thanks for the great article. I am writing this comment because it sounds like you would be interested in more information about using primaries or caucuses for selecting nominees.

I live in Washington state, which has probably one of the most complicated systems for choosing a nominee: Caucuses by precinct, which select delegates and alternates to go to county conventions. The county convention includes caucuses by Legislative district to select delegates and alternates to go on to the State convention. At the state convention caucuses are held by Congressional district to select the delegates and alternates who will be sent to the national convention. We also have a primary a few days after the state convention, the result of which binds the national delegates, by Congressional district, for the first ballot.

The caucuses are closed, with a deadline set two to three weeks prior. The primary merely requires not having been a part of any democrat caucuses that year (the WA democrats do not hold primaries for presidential nominations.)

As addendum, two items: First, this is the first year when I have been old enough to engage in this process, and what a year to start! Second, and more interesting, is that Snohomish county, where I live, and where much of Seattle lives, managed to elect primarily Cruz delegates to go to state, and only one trump supporter got huffy.

Once again, thank you for your writing, and thank you for your time.

—Jeremy West

Vilified for Participating

I too was at the Colorado Assembly as a delegate. We went from a small town in southern Colorado. We had, from our district, about twenty that came, alternates and the delegates.

To become a delegate you had to go to meetings (oh dear) and find out what is going on. We had one Trump guy in our district and on the floor where we were. We voted him in to go so he could represent his thoughts.

The number of Trump voters was very small. They were not very vocal, since Trump himself did not even deem our state important enough to send a higher profile person to win over hearts and minds—nothing but a unknown. That was foolish in my view.

After it was all over, the Trump vote was small. Another non-establishment guy, Darryl Glenn, won hands down with this crowd. He had a powerful, faith-filled speech.

All in all we enjoyed the process. I hadn’t even voted yet and posted I was at the convention and was vilified as a sellout—insanity, showing zero grasp of the book “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Not a wise, winning play. Now Trump and his supporters are whining about everything. Sour grapes I’d say; get better organized.

I will vote for Cruz or Trump if either wins. No Democrat, period.


Shocked at No Binding Poll

As a recent registered Republican in Colorado, I also was unaffiliated but changed last year in order to participate in the nomination process. I was totally shocked to learn the Colorado Republicans would not have a binding poll at their caucus.

Yes I understand your reasons. But in considering caucus vs primaries please consider the following: On caucus day many may be traveling, hospitalized, serving in the military, attending to family, working, or have any number of other legitimate reasons that would prohibit them from attending a caucus. A primary with early voting ends that problem and equalized the playing field.

One other problem. Colorado includes mountain communities. I live in Nederland and would have had to travel over 25 miles to attend a caucus in a strange community. How is that fair? It certainly doesn’t put me in touch with my community. Nor would I know anyone there. We do not have many Republicans in Nederland. So I had no say in anything.

Thanks for reading. Please consider others if you are in a position to help Colorado represent all Republican voters.

—Pat Everson

Ari Armstrong replies: It’s silly to say you had no say; you got to vote for delegates to conventions and run for delegate yourself if you wanted. True, if you live in a lightly populated area, you probably have to drive further to meetings. To repeat: I think a caucus poll plus a mechanism for absentee votes would work well.

Taxpayers Shouldn’t Have to Fund Primaries

I like your idea of eliminating primaries and just using the caucus system. As a former precinct captain, I found that the caucuses did a great job of representing the folks who bothered to attend. And I object to forcing taxpayers to pay for state run primaries. The parties should use their own funds to decide who to run for office.


Cruz Favored at Caucus

Very good article. I’m in Mesa county precinct 10 and Mr. Trump got one of 12 votes. Mr. Cruz was clearly the favorite in our Precinct.

—Lynn Ensley

Trump Favors Controversy over Truth

I’ve become more convinced that whatever Trump says is designed to create controversy and attention for himself. He doesn’t care about the truth.

I went to my precinct caucus in Boulder, CO. I hadn’t been to one in 20 years. I felt like I’d put my two cents in this time. I was a delegate to the 2nd CD convention 20 years ago. I can’t remember if I was eligible to go farther than that, but that’s where I stopped. I wasn’t interested in being a delegate this time, as I know that drill, and I have other goals I’m focused on right now. I was hoping to vote for at least one Cruz supporter at my precinct who could go on to be a delegate to another assembly, who would hopefully vote for Cruz delegates to the national. (None at the precinct level are committed to vote for anybody’s delegates to the national. They just talk about their personal preferences.) I was the only Cruz supporter in my precinct. There were five of us. There were about ten-plus precincts in the caucus. Except for myself, I think there was only one other person in my precinct who had been to a caucus before, and he had participated in the IA caucuses four years ago.

I wasn’t prepared to make a pitch for Cruz, but I did my best on the spot. Everyone except for myself in my precinct was for Rubio and Kasich. They didn’t think Cruz was mainstream enough to win the general election. We were supposed to vote on two or three delegates (I forget how many now) from our precinct. I didn’t vote on delegates, which was fine with me. I showed up, did what I could, which was vote on party resolutions, and left.

The Boulder County Republicans conducted an unofficial straw poll at their caucuses, and Rubio eked out a “win,” with 32% of the vote. Cruz came in just behind at 31%. Trump had something like 23%, and Kasich got something like 14%. That was a surprising result, since Boulder is such a left-leaning county. Since Rubio dropped out of the race after the FL primary, I imagine most of the Rubio support went to Cruz and Kasich, though it’s interesting that Kasich didn’t appear to be a factor at all in the conventions. You’d think with Trump’s charge of Establishment corruption, Kasich would’ve done great here, since he’s their first choice. If they had their way, he’d be the clear leader in delegates by now.

[April 19 Update:  remembered later I left out votes for Carson when I talked about the straw poll. Rather than rely on my unreliable memory, I went back and checked the published results in my local paper ( They were Rubio 33%, Cruz 31%, Trump 19%, Kasich 10%, and Carson 7%.]

The thing about this is that every Coloradan who is registered Republican has an opportunity to be involved in the process. They won’t make it all the way through the process, since it’s designed to winnow down the group that gets to the state convention, but even if you don’t make it all the way (or want to), you have an opportunity to influence the process by dealing with the people who are your neighbors, and are in your region. People like yourself, or them, get the opportunity to be involved at higher levels in the process, even becoming national delegates. It’s not an insider clique that meets by itself, and selects delegates on its own. Another thing about the convention process is it doesn’t exist just to select delegates to the national convention. Candidates for state office and Congress appeal to convention delegates for their votes, so they can either appear on the Republican primary ballot, or be nominated outright by the delegates in attendance to appear on the general election ballot, if there is no primary. The thing is, you have to be interested in the Republican Party, not just their candidates, and you have to at least consult a local party office to participate, so they can tell you how to do it, but that’s all you need. You don’t have to be a mover and shaker, winer and diner, muckety-muck.

—Mark Miller

Dirty Politics

People, in general, don’t follow politics as a rule of thumb. They don’t go to Drudge, don’t typically follow pundits at all. They do note however, when they are supposed to vote, and generally who they are going to vote for. Regardless of “the rules” set out by the RNC, they are not expecting to have their vote not count. So while all of these shenanigans may be legal, the average voter dud not know that they could vote for their delegates, what that meant, or when the vote was taking place. So they are angered that they do not now have a voice and feel it has been stolen from them. Rightly so I might add. I see this as dirty politics. Something the democrats would do. This kind of behavior is why they want Trump in the White House. They’re sick to death with politicians; that’s why Americans from all parties with differing views on many things are all on the Trump Train together. The RNC should take note, because they feel, rightly or wrongly, if Trump loses the nomination because of tactics like these, Trump supporters will follow Trump wherever he goes. But they will not vote Cruz or Kasich. If they must, they will stay home.

—Shane Carroll

Ari Armstrong replies: I think if people join a private organization, such as a political party, they should expect to have to follow the rules of that organization. If you want to change the rules, get involved. Burning the house down isn’t the answer.

A Primary Is More Accessible

Thank you for your explanation on caucus system. I see now that we need to change to a primary voting system where all people up to 100 yrs. old, the disabled and those in military, etc., can vote quickly and securely. Shouldn’t have to convince a “delegate” to support our candidate choice.

—Lorain Kaiser

Process Needs Reform

You explanation of the process is pretty accurate. I have been going to caucus for more than twenty years and have been to several state assemblies. The problem we face as a party is how people are feeling about the way the process is working. Trump’s campaign has brought people to the conversation that have never participated before. They just want to cast their vote and go home. They have no interest in playing the political game. They just want to pick a leader and go on about trying to survive the fallout from Obama’s failed policies. The PERCEPTION is that their vote didn’t count. You can not argue people out of how they feel. We have to respond to how they are feeling and correct the perceived injustice. Asking people to comprehend and participate in our arcane caucus system is not going to win over these folks, and we need them to win the white house and more importantly the SCOTUS. The GOP is getting hammered for not listening to its people; the Democrats have the same problem. The process needs to be refined so that its less like making sausage, and more like carving a steak.


Losing Our Nation to Mob Rule

Your article concerning the Colorado Convention was great. I live in New York and have always taken my responsibility to be an informed voter very seriously. I value our constitution and understand the sacrifice made to protect our freedoms. I believe the caucus is what our founding fathers had in mind so that those who take the time to participate and not just shout like a mob will protect us from tyranny. I fear we are losing our nation to mob rule and people who have no understanding of our constitutional principles.

—Michael Dyckman

Politics Is Too Dirty

Ari, thank you for the very informative article. I am from Iowa, another caucus state, and although some like to criticize the caucus, it does work very well. I am also a Trump supporter and like many others, find myself disappointed that the Trump Campaign was not on top of this. I do agree that delegates chosen in this process should be binding.

I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, and my opinion is that Colorado was not the main issue going on that weekend, but has been used by the media to divert attention from other issues.

Just like Colorado, delegate conventions were being held in many states. As the day progressed, there were several reports of ballot irregularities. Delegate names being misspelled, names omitted, double delegate numbers, etc.

As informed voters, we see that it seems to be a pattern and our hearts actually ache that our country’s core is constantly disrespected and trampled on.

Most of us feel the GOP is dead, but it is because of what they have become. Politics have pretty much always been dirty, many are finally deciding it has gotten too dirty to be able to wash and wear. It is time to throw it out, dirty water and all, and replace with brand new.

—Alice Cronin

Ari Armstrong replies: Any complex process, whether a caucus and convention system or a primary vote, will inevitably have a few errors. This is especially true when volunteer activists play a huge role, as they do in Colorado’s caucuses. I am aware of a few minor errors, but nothing major, and nothing that would have changed the outcome. I believe these were all innocent. Trump’s own campaign made numerous errors in promoting its slate of delegates. I encourage people not to fall into confirmation bias. If you think Republican “leadership” is out to get Trump, you’re bound to see examples that seem to support that belief, and you may be tempted to ignore the many examples that run counter to it.

How You Can Stop Voting Naively and Start Voting Strategically

Some people are naive voters, their votes accomplish nothing, and, for them, voting is a complete waste of time. Many people are strategic voters at a gut level, but they don’t understand how their voting is strategic or how they might pursue more complex voting strategies. My goal here is to turn naive voters into strategic voters and to turn gut-level strategic voters into self-consciously strategic voters with greater political influence.

But why would I want to help make other voters, including my political opponents, more strategic in their voting? It’s not like I can publish my advice and hope that only my allies will read it. Aren’t I just encouraging both sides to up their games, resulting in no net gains? I think not.

A major problem with politics today is that egalitarian “eat the rich” primary voters largely drive the Democratic party, while theocratic primary voters largely drive the Republican party. That is, both parties are disproportionately driven by ideologies that most Americans do not share. I think that if more voters become more strategic, that will help diffuse political influence and improve both parties over time. Or so one can hope.

I’m writing this article  partly in response to feedback, much of it explosively angry, that I’ve received via email and social media regarding two of my recent articles about Ted Cruz.

Here’s the backstory in brief: I like many of Cruz’s policies and pronouncements, but I’m more than a little irritated with him for lurching hard toward theocratic conservatism. I’m so irritated over one particular incident (his dalliance with Kevin Swanson) that I declared I’ll vote for any Democrat over Cruz, unless Cruz apologizes.

Even though I wrote a follow-up piece explaining some of the reasoning behind my political strategy, various respondents continued to basically misunderstand what it is that I’m up to. A typical response amounted to (and I exaggerate only very slightly), “Oh my God! You mean you’d actually support the dastardly Marxist Islamofascist-loving Hillary Clinton, who will leave America in smoldering ashes, over the shining knight of reason and liberty Ted Cruz, who will lead America to renewed greatness? You are evil.”

I ruminated over how such respondents could be so dense as to totally misunderstand the nature and purpose of my political stance. Then it occurred to me: Such people have actually never thought seriously about political strategy, and they have no grasp of it. To the degree that they’re strategic voters, it’s by accident, not conscious design.

Obviously political strategy is an enormously complex topic, so here I want to narrow the discussion only to basic voting strategies. I want to discuss naive voting, which here I call “duty voting,” and five types of strategic voting.

Duty Voting

A naive voter looks at voting as a social duty. A duty voter will examine the candidates, pick a slate of candidates, quietly fill out the ballot, and consider the duty fulfilled—all without giving any thought to the impact of the vote.

A duty vote has no impact. Duty voting is a total waste of time, at least in the context of large-scale (national) elections in which one’s vote will almost certainly never impact the outcome of any election. (By contrast, individual votes actually have some realistic chance, however remote, of making a difference in very-competitive regional races.)

In all seriousness, duty voters would be better off staying home (or leaving their mailed ballots unopened) and doing something else. So let’s turn to the various types of strategic voting.

Social Pressure Voting

Most people, at some level, understand that their purpose in voting is not merely to cast a single ballot in a large-scale election. Rather, their purpose of voting is to mutually encourage their allies to vote, too, and thereby to achieve an outcome they favor. Such social pressure voting is the most widely practiced form of strategic voting.

To put the matter in terms of public choice economics, voting is “irrational” for the individual voter, because an individual vote will not sway the outcome of the election. However, if I and all of my allies sit home, and our opponents show up to vote, then we will all lose out. So voting becomes what the economists call a “free rider problem”—individual voters are tempted to free ride on the efforts of other voters, but, if all the voters of a given camp free ride, none of those voters get what they want. In these terms, social pressure voting is a way to overcome the free rider problem in voting.

As a matter of strategy, social pressure voting is very simple. It amounts basically to publicly making it known what political team you’re likely to support, publicly announcing that you’re going to vote, and suggesting that you might be irritated with those of your allies who don’t vote. This could be as simple has having a water-cooler discussion about the election or posting a remark on Facebook.

Social pressure voting is the most widely practiced form of strategic voting, and it’s important. It does not, however, exhaust the forms of strategic voting. Other forms of strategic voting can have even more impact in an election, for those who wish to pursue them.

Endorsement Voting

I suppose that the second-most common form of strategic voting is endorsement voting. Here the idea is that, not only do you encourage “your team” to go out and vote, you publicly articulate a case for voting for a particular candidate. This type of strategic voting often is more important during primaries, when many candidates with similar views vie for a chance to appear in the general election.

The purpose of endorsement voting, quite simply, is to try to persuade people sitting on the fence, whether they are other primary voters or swing voters in the general, to embrace your candidate of choice.

The public pronouncement is an essential element of endorsement voting. Whenever you promote a candidate on social media or among your friends, in the context of explaining your pending vote, you are practicing the strategy. Of course, you could endorse a candidate without voting at all, but the idea here is that, by endorsing a particular candidate and publicly declaring your intention to vote for that candidate, you help drum up support for the candidate in terms of voter turnout. (There are many other ways of supporting a candidate that I won’t discuss here.)

Lesser of Evils Voting

If you openly declare, “I’m voting for Candidate A over Candidate B, not because I like Candidate A but because I regard that candidate as somewhat less-bad than the other,” that is the essence of strategically voting for the lesser of evils.

Again, the public pronouncement is the key to this sort of strategy. Electorally, the outcome of actively endorsing a candidate, versus declaring you’re voting for the candidate only as the lesser of evils, is identical (and totally irrelevant, because your single vote doesn’t matter). The purpose is to put the candidate and that candidate’s party on notice that you’re not happy with your choices, and they better shape up in the future if they want your continued support.

NOTA Voting

Threatening to vote for “none of the above” (NOTA) rather than the candidate you’d normally be presumed to support is a very powerful political tool. Among Republicans, two groups routinely use this strategy to great effect: Religious conservatives and gun owners. Groups that advocate abortion bans routinely threaten candidates in this way. I’ve heard it plausibly argued that gun owners sitting home out of a sense of Republican betrayal has swung at least one presidential election (although Dave Kopel argues Bush the Elder still would have lost to Clinton, just not as badly).

The strategy of NOTA voting essentially communicates, “My candidate or party has betrayed me so badly that I’m willing to sit on the fence this cycle, even if the other candidate wins.” NOTA voting takes the long view: The goal is primarily to alter the course of one’s favored political party long term, not influence the current election.

Punishment Voting

NOTA voting is one method of punishing one’s candidate or party, but there’s an even more powerful method of punishment voting: Threatening to vote for the opposing candidate rather than merely not vote. If you want to call this the “nuclear option” of voting, that’s probably apt.

The electoral reasoning behind this is straight-forward. To create a simplified scenario, let’s assume there are one hundred voters in a particular race, and that the predicted outcome would be 52 votes for Candidate A and 48 votes for Candidate B. But then let’s say three of Candidate A’s supporters become very annoyed with something their candidate does or proposes. How do they get the candidate to shape up?

If they threaten merely not to vote, then Candidate A still wins, only by a narrower margin of 49 to 48. (Voting for a minor-party candidate yields the same numbers.) Candidate A, if he can predict this, might say, “I realize you three are angry, but so what? I’m still going to win, so screw you.” But if the three angry voters threaten to exercise the “nuclear option,” then Candidate A faces the real risk of losing the race by a margin of 49 to 51. What do you think Candidate A’s attitude will become with respect to those three voters, even though they constitute a tiny three percent of the electorate in this example? That’s pretty obvious.

Notice that punishment voting has nothing to do with “supporting” the opposing candidate, in the sense of expressing positive approval or moral sanction of that candidate. Punishment voting is essentially communicating to a candidate (and the candidate’s supporters), “Yes, I hate the opposing candidate, but I’m so pissed off at you over the matter at hand that I’m threatening to ‘go nuclear’ on your ass to try to get your attention.”

Punishment voting is an extreme and uncomfortable move, which is why most people never even consider it as a possibility, much less execute it. But I’m not most people, and I think that Cruz’s open pandering to theocratic conservatives completely merits the threat of punishment voting.

As with NOTA voting, punishment voting takes a long view. The idea is that, even if we (the punishers) end up throwing the upcoming election, we’re going to work toward the long-term improvement of our political candidates. Maybe a candidate we hate will win this time, but hopefully next time, and on into the future, we’ll get a candidate that we like.

Of course, there are two types of punishment voting, absolute and conditional. If you’re so upset with a candidate that there is no way that candidate could find redemption in your eyes, you might just want to announce a firm punishment vote. But if you still think there’s hope for your candidate, you might want to announce conditional punishment. That is, if the candidate shapes up, you will rescind your threat of voting for the opposing candidate. (At this point, that’s my position with respect to Cruz.)

I can understand if people want to criticize a threat of punishment voting in a given case: As noted, it’s an extreme move. But it does annoy me when people pretend that a punishment vote is something other than what it is. If you want to argue I’m wrong, great, but don’t be a complete idiot about it by ignoring the hard realities of strategic voting in our winner-take-all system.

At any rate, I sincerely hope that my allies, my critics, and my opponents all adopt more strategic voting, as I think that will make some headway toward improving the American political scene over time.


How Colorado’s Lax Voter Security Can Lead a Criminal Right to Your Doorstep

bigstock-computer-criminalIf someone is stalking you or seeking to do you harm, the state of Colorado practically hands the criminal your personal home address, if you are registered to vote.

A couple weeks ago my wife showed me how, with only a name, zip code, and date of birth, you can access your own—or anyone else’s—voter registration information, including home address. Obviously, these bits of information usually are trivially easy for anyone to pick up via quick internet searches. What’s more, Richard Coolidge from the Colorado Secretary of State’s office tells me that someone from New Hampshire requested the entire Colorado voting list and published it online (I have not otherwise verified this claim).

Now that a publication for which I write is preparing to republish the Charlie Hebdo covers, it occurred to me that I don’t want every jihadist in the world to have easy access to a Google map to my front doorstep. Several years ago, when I was writing on another matter, I received a very nasty death threat (perhaps better characterized as a death wish), to the effect that the person hoped for my flesh to be lashed from my bones. I set up a mail box (at a UPS store) intentionally to keep my home address hidden; apparently, that was for naught.

There are provisions in Colorado statutes for anyone who has “reason to believe” that he, or “a member of [his] immediate household, will be exposed to criminal harassment, or otherwise be in danger of bodily harm.” You can go to your local DMV, request a “voter confidentiality” form, and pay a $5 fee to process it. Coolidge tells me that, if you have a restraining order against someone or other type of “active case,” you can join an “address confidentiality program.”

I’m glad those safeguards exist. However, I do not believe they are adequate. First, hardly anyone knows about the existing security risk or the existing remedies for it. Second, by the time someone is threatened or at risk, it’s probably too late—his personal home address is already published online.

Right now, the default is for voters’ home addresses to be openly published. I think that’s wrong. I’m as big a believer as anyone of open government records; however, there is a huge difference between the records of a state agency and one’s personal, private information—the release of which could create a life-threatening security risk.

I’m not entirely sure what the legislature should do to fix the problem; Coolidge says “Secretary [of State Wayne] Williams will be working with the legislature to raise this important issue and identify more options for voters.” Offhand, one idea is to list a voter’s precinct, not his home address. Another is to require those who request voters’ personal information to provide their own information to the government and agree to restrict their use of the information.

I understand the need to protect against voter fraud. But I also understand the need not to expose at-risk individuals to unnecessary danger.

I shouldn’t have to endanger my life to exercise my right to vote, and neither should anyone else who may be the target of criminal stalking or plots. I feel like that’s precisely what I’ve done.  I hope the legislature fixes this problem before someone is maimed or murdered with the help of these records.

Libertarians Nearly Cost Colorado Republicans the State Senate; Approval Voting Would Solve

In a year when Republicans made large gains throughout much of the nation, Colorado Democrats nearly maintained control of state government—thanks in part to Libertarians. As it was, Republicans squeaked by with a single-seat advantage in the state senate, while losing the state house and the governor’s race.

The Libertarian almost certainly cost the Republicans a state senate seat from District 20, where Cheri Jahn beat Larry Queen by 33,303 to 32,922 votes—a difference of only 381 votes. Meanwhile, Libertarian Chris Heismann earned 4,968 votes. (I’m relying on “unofficial results” from the Colorado Secretary of State throughout.)

Of course, there’s no reason to think that everyone who voted Libertarian would otherwise vote Republican, but in this case it’s hard to believe that Jahn would have won except for the Libertarian on the ballot.

Meanwhile, in District 5, Democrat Kerry Donovan beat Republican Don Suppes by 27,044 to 25,981 votes, a difference of 1,063. The Libertarian earned 2,339 votes (so it’s less clear the candidate cost the Republican).

In District 19, Libertarian Gregg Miller arguably nearly cost Republican Laura Woods her narrow victory; Miller earned 3,638 votes, while Woods won by only 689 votes. (However, Woods, a supporter of abortion bans and so-called “personhood” legislation, alienated many liberty-minded voters, including me.)

In District 24, Republican Beth Martinez-Humenik probably would have lost if a Libertarian had been in the race; she beat Democrat Judy Solano by only 876 votes.

Remarkably, Libertarians did not cost Republicans any state-wide races. Republican Cory Gardner won the U.S. Senate seat (although he got less than 50 percent of the vote), and Republican Bob Beauprez lost by substantially more votes than the Libertarian received. (Each U.S. House victor received over 50 percent of the vote.)

Claims that Libertarians cost Republicans races are nothing new; they crop up every two years. As another example, this year Libertarian Robert Sarvis most likely cost Republican Ed Gillespie a U.S. Senate seat in Virginia. “Spoilers” are an inherent aspect of single-vote, winner-take-all elections with more than two candidates.

Is there any alternative? To date, Republicans have attempted, without much success, to persuade Libertarians to stay off the ballot. Then, after elections, Republicans berate Libertarians for “costing” them races. This inevitably leads to nasty exchanges between Republicans and Libertarians, with the end result that Libertarians become angrier than ever toward Republicans and resolve to keep running candidates. Some Libertarians even argue that their source of power and influence is their ability to cost Republicans some elections.

There is a better way, and it is approval voting. Approval voting simply allows voters to vote for more than one candidate. So, for example, someone could vote for both the Republican and the Libertarian (or the Democrat and the Libertarian, or whatever combination). Then the candidate with the most votes overall wins. (Total votes exceed total voters, because many voters cast more than one vote.) There are no rankings and no runoffs; it’s a very simple voting system to understand and to implement.

With approval voting, it might still be the case that some Republicans lose by a smaller margin that the Libertarian’s vote total. If so, Republicans could not complain that Libertarians “stole” an election, because voters had an opportunity to vote Republican as well, yet chose not to.

Another advantage to approval voting is that it would provide a better indicator for how much support the victor actually has. Currently, it is common for candidates to win with less than 50 percent of the vote. Under approval voting, winning with less than 50 percent would indicate widespread dissatisfaction with the victor.

Approval voting obviously would be good for Colorado Republicans. The GOP often faces Libertarian competition, whereas Democrats rarely face left-leaning minor candidates.

Approval voting also would be good for third parties, I think. Rather than regard Libertarians as dangerous competitors, Republicans would see an opportunity to woo Libertarian votes.

Approval voting likely would be bad for Colorado Democrats electorally, at least in the short run, but it’s hard to see how Democrats can in good conscience oppose a voting system that is more democratic in important ways. If it’s good that people are able to vote for one candidate, as Democrats incessantly claim, then is it not better if people are able to vote for more than one candidate in a race? And it remains possible that Democrats will face stiff competition from a third party—remember Ralph Nader in 2000.

My aim, of course, is not to maximize democracy (e.g., mob rule), but to maximize government’s protection of individual rights. But I think approval voting likely would be, on net, both more democratic and (marginally) more supportive of rights-respecting government. Why not implement it?


Would Gessler Have Won the GOP Primary with Approval Voting?

gesslerOn Tuesday Colorado Republicans selected Bob Beauprez to run for governor—again. Queue “both ways Bob,” queue the “war on women.” (I doubt the Democrats will make much of Beauprez’s 2007 support for an insurance mandate, or his 2000 support for anti-gun laws.) I predict that he will lose—again (this time to John Hickenlooper, the incumbent). (This is no courageous prediction; I don’t think any of the candidates would have been able to beat Hickenlooper, despite his mishandling of the gun issue. I could be wrong, of course; general antipathy toward Democrats this time around could swing the governor’s race.)

What’s interesting about the primary vote is that four strong candidates split the vote relatively evenly. With 98 percent of the votes reported, the Denver Post offers the following results:

  • Bob Beauprez: 30.3%
  • Tom Tancredo: 26.6%
  • Scott Gessler: 23.2%
  • Mike Kopp: 19.8%

In other words, fewer than a third of Colorado Republican primary voters, or a little over 111,000 people (in a state with a population of around 5.3 million people), cast a vote for Beauprez—hardly a popular uprising.

Consider what might have happened under approval voting. The basics of approval voting are straightforward: Each voter gets to vote for as many candidates as he or she “approves” of. The candidate with the most votes wins. For example, if I had voted in this primary under approval voting, I would have cast a vote for both Gessler and Tancredo (despite my deep disagreements with the latter).

Although it’s quite possible that Beauprez would have won under approval voting as well, I think there’s a good chance Gessler would have won.

Here’s my reasoning. Beauprez is the milquetoast, establishment candidate, and I think a lot of people voted for him just because he’s tall and grandfatherly, he has congressional experience, and he’s not as ornery as Gessler (a quality of Gessler’s I find appealing) or as weighed down by baggage as Tancredo. (Kopp was never a leading candidate, despite his incessant YouTube ads.) I think that, under approval voting, many people who voted for Beauprez also would have voted for Gessler. I think that many people who voted for Tancredo also would have voted for Kopp, and vice versa, but that many people who voted for those candidates also would have voted for Gessler as their second choice.  And I think that a disproportionate number of people who voted for Gessler would have voted for a single candidate. In this scenario, Gessler may well have pulled ahead.

Of course, there’s no way to know for sure. The only thing we can know for sure at this point is that fewer than a third of Republican voters cast a vote for the Republican nominee for governor, and that doesn’t give me much confidence that the outcome accurately reflects voters’ preferences.

Those who have a different guess as to what the outcome would have been under approval voting are welcome to explain their reasoning in the comments.

Incidentally, Mike Dunafon is also running for governor, as an independent (and I may well vote for him), and there’s also a Libertarian in the race. Although Hick might get more than half of the total votes, he may well win with Beauprez and Dunafon (and the Libertarian) combined earning more than half the votes. If that happens, I will take the opportunity to write yet another post about the benefits of approval voting.

Westminster Should Consider Approval Voting

I read in the January 25 Westsider that the Westminster City Council is considering eliminating run-off elections for mayor:

If the top candidate does not receive 40 percent [under the current system], the top two candidates face off against each other during a run-off election. This process requires a second election, costing about $100,000. . . . Resident Tim Kauffman told council [at a January 14 meeting] the run-off election is important because the mayor position needs widespread community support.

The council will decide the measure to eliminate the run-off election on January 28, the paper reports.

But the city could avoid both problems—a costly run-off and a low-popularity mayor—simply by instituting approval voting, a process I wrote about a couple years ago.

Here’s how it would work. For the mayor’s election, voters would see all the candidates’ names on the ballot. Voters could vote for one or more of these candidates—as many as they “approved” of. Then the candidate with the highest vote total wins.

This guarantees that the winner has broad support, yet it saves the cost and hassle of a run-off election. What’s not to like?

New Group Seeks Voter Integrity

At Monday’s Liberty On the Rocks Flatirons event, Jeff Kelly discussed his new group, “Colorado Voter Protection.”

Kelly said his group’s goals are three-fold: first, to clean up the voter rolls; second, to “recruit and deploy honest, trained poll watchers”; and, third, to prevent voter fraud.

Regarding that last point, Kelly said he’d like to see legislation requiring the verification of citizenship, minimizing mailed ballots, and requiring voter identification.

Gessler Addresses Anonymous, Verifiable Voting

Secretary of State Scott Gessler discussed the standards of anonymous, verifiable voting when I interviewed him at the Independence Institute’s annual banquet. He said that, while current practices are “solid,” potential improvements in technology might further improve the system.

For additional videos from the II’s banquet, see also:

Kopel: ObamaCare Mandates Unconstitutional

Independence Institute Banquet

Why Voting Integrity Requires Proof Positive

Recently I wrote, “Mailing out ballots to inactive voters is an open invitation to voter fraud.”

This prompted leftist gadfly Alan Franklin to reply in a series of Twitter posts, “[I]f mailing ballots to inactives is ‘an open invitation to voter fraud,’ I assume you have… evidence of that? … Because if you have no evidence… you’re just another clown using baseless scare tactics. You know that, right?” He further claimed that I’m using “baseless scare tactics to stop ballots from going to voters” and “[t]echnicalities to suppress voting.”

This is a serious topic that deserves serious consideration (as opposed to Franklin’s ad hominem attacks).

The principle involved here is that the onus of proof lies on the one making an assertion. So if someone were to falsely accuse Franklin of theft, he could sensibly reply, “You have no evidence that I’ve committed theft; therefore, your accusation is groundless.”

Does a voting system likewise require positive proof of fraud before that system may be declared unsound and prone to fraud? No. The difference is that voting is the positive evidence required for an election result, and that positive evidence must be collected and presented according to reasonable standards of integrity.

To return to the example of falsely accusing someone of theft, imagine the following discussion:

Ben: “You are a thief”
Alan “No, I’m not. You have no evidence of that, and you are lying.”
Ben: “But you have no evidence that I’m lying, so therefore you are a thief!”

The problem is that Ben bears the burden of proving that Alan is a thief. Ben cannot throw the burden of proof back onto Alan.

Likewise, the voting system bears of burden of proving which candidate (or side) earned the specified number of votes. One cannot reasonably accept just any system of voting based on the claim, “Well, you have no evidence there’s anything wrong with this system.” Voting requires positive evidence that it yields accurate results.

Imagine some different scenarios that illustrate this principle.

In Country P, the dictator says, “I am the rightful ruler of this country, because the people support me!” If a critic were to answer, “There’s no good reason to think the people support you; why not throw the question up for a fair and open election?” What we we say if the dictator answered, “I know my people, and I know they support me. You have no evidence that there’s anything fraudulent about my claim, you clown!”

But let’s say we could persuade the dictator that an actual vote by the reasonably qualified electorate would better determine which leader has the majority’s support. The dictator says, “I have collected all the ballots, and I have counted them myself, and I am the clear winner.” If the critic were to reply, “It’s not good enough for you to count the ballots yourself, because you have a strong incentive to miscount or ‘lose’ the ballots you don’t like. Therefore, the ballots must be counted in an open and verifiable way.” Again we would not be persuaded if the dictator replied, “You have no evidence that my vote count is flawed, you clown!”

Let’s switch the scenario to something more like our actual system. Suppose the Secretary of State issued the following proclamation: “I am standing up to the opposition’s voter suppression machine! I want to ensure that every qualified voter has an opportunity to cast a ballot. Therefore, I am mailing ten copies of the ballot to every residential address in Colorado, to ensure there are plenty of ballots to go around to all qualified voters. Moreover, people can also walk into my office, without any identification (because demanding ID would make me part of the voter suppression machine!), and request all the extra ballots they may need for themselves and others they know who are qualified voters.”

A critic might argue, “But, Secretary, such a system would be an open invitation to fraud!” What would we think of a Secretary who answered, “You have no evidence that such a system would result in fraud, you clown!” It would quickly become clear which party more closely resembles a clown.

A voting system requires positive proof that only qualified voters cast ballots, and that each voter casts only one ballot per election. You can’t just mail out ballots to everybody in the state. You can’t just let everybody wander in off the streets to vote, without identification.

Mailing ballots to inactive voters clearly fails the test of voting integrity. Often voters become inactive because they move out of state. Mailing ballots to those old addresses, absent any additional evidence that the voter actually lives there, is just asking for fraud. Setting up a system of voting that easily allows fraud is stupid and contrary to the very purpose of voting.

(Remember that inactive voters easily can reactivate themselves.)

Indeed, I worry that the entire strategy of mailing out ballots invites fraud. How many elderly voters get a little “help” from their activist grandchildren? How many people cast ballots that aren’t actually theirs? We do not know. It is impossible to know. And the absence of proof of voting integrity is the problem.

If we are going to maintain the system of mailed ballots, at least that system must include basic safeguards to prevent the worst and most obvious invitations to fraud.

Far better is to return to the polling place. (Note that there could even be a roving polling facility for the physically incapacitated.) Then voters can show their ID at the door. It’s clear that one voter casts one vote by his or her choice. That provides positive proof that the election is fair. Would that result in fewer people voting? Probably. But if you can’t be bothered to put in the minimal effort required to ensure voting integrity, seriously do you have any businesses helping to determine the future of our civilization?

Left Targets Gessler for Protecting Voting Integrity

Mailing out ballots to inactive voters is an open invitation to voter fraud. There’s no telling who’s going to receive and submit the ballot.

Therefore, Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler sensibly told Denver and Pueblo Counties that they should follow Colorado law and not mail ballots to inactive voters.

In response to Gessler’s protection of voting integrity, the left has waged a full-scale smear campaign against him, accusing him of racism and disenfranchisement. This is a major leftist strategy for the 2012 elections: smear all Republicans, conservatives, Tea Partiers, and free-market activists as racists, in order to raise sympathy support for Obama. It is a nasty, mean-spirited, intellectually dishonest tactic. If you want to understand why the left does this, read the article I coauthored on Saul Alinsky and Obama.

One basic issue is how an “inactive” voter can become “reactivated.” It turns out it’s trivially easy.

I called Andrew Cole about this; he is a spokesman for Gessler’s office.(Michael Sandoval has also written a bit about this issue.)

Cole said, “To become inactive, you have to have missed a general election, not responded to at least one follow-up postcard from your county clerk, and not voted in any subsequent elections such as a municipal election.”

So how does an inactive voter reactivate? Cole explained, “You can physically visit your clerk’s office, you can go to and with a state ID card activate your status online, and you could also write a letter to your clerk, but you’d have to have a signature to verify who you were.”

In addition, a previously inactive voter can get a ballot from the clerk directly “up until and including election day.”

So this is pretty simple: if you have not voted in a recent election, and if you have not bothered to reply to your clerk’s postcard, you can easily reactivate yourself online or by visiting or writing your clerk. Surely that’s not too much to ask of those determining the future of the free world.

While he was on the phone, I also asked Cole about the controversy surrounding military voters.

Cole said that issue arose in Pueblo County under clerk Bo Ortiz. Cole said Ortiz asked the Secretary of State’s office about the matter only this week.

According to Cole, Gessler’s office told Ortiz that he “can’t mail ballots to inactive voters.” However, he “should have resolved this issue weeks ago.” Cole said there are 80 inactive military voters listed in Pueblo County, and Ortiz has email contacts for 64 of them. In Cole’s words, Gessler’s office told Ortiz’s office this week, “You should immediately email all 64” with known emails and send postcards to the rest. Moreover, Ortiz “should have done that weeks ago.”

Cole summarized, “We’re asking Peublo County to follow the law, just like we’re asking Denver to follow the law.”

Apparently following the law is not a concept the left easily wraps its collective head around. Instead, the left would rather play the politics of smear and character assassination.

Denver Mayor Race Illustrates Benefits of Approval Voting

As of this writing, the top four candidates in the Denver race for mayor show the following vote totals:

Chris Romer: 28.5%
Michael Hancock: 27.1%
James Mejia: 25.7%
Doug Linkhart: 9.4%

The Denver Post reports, “If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the May 3 election, the top two vote-getters advance to a June 7 runoff.”

But if you think about it, that’s a pretty foolish way to run an election. For example, what if Linkhart’s voters prefer Mejia over the other two? Too bad: Mejia is out (assuming the percentages hold). Or what if the voters of either Romer or Hancock far preferred Mejia over the alternative? Again, the outcome will be that a less-favored candidate will win anyway.

In addition, holding a runoff vote costs taxpayers more money (and taxes their patience as well).

The way to solve both problems — to pick the most-favored candidate and to do it with a single vote — is to institute approval voting. The basic idea is that voters can cast more than one vote. For instance, you could vote for Romer only, Linkhart and Romer, Romer and Hancock, or whatever other combination of candidates you think you could live with.

As it stands, chances are pretty good that the next Denver mayor will not be the candidate with the most support among the voters, though we’ll never really know. Even if the results turn out “right” in this case, inevitably the less-favored candidate will win in certain other races. I can think of lots of good reasons to institute approval voting, and no good reason not to.


Anonymous commented May 4, 2011 at 9:20 AM
Great post.

Anonymous commented May 6, 2011 at 6:04 PM
Why not prioritize by a 1 – 2 – 3 – 4? And maybe a NOTA?

Ari commented May 6, 2011 at 6:16 PM
One important reason not to let voters rank candidates is that it would be hard to process. If the numbers were hand-written, that would inevitably lead to disputes about the intended meaning of the handwriting. Plus, what if a voter did something like assign two #1s? A digital system also would be complicated. I suppose you could do it in waves: “Who is your first choice candidate, if any?” Then, of those remaining, “Who is your second choice candidate, if any?” And so on.

There’s another potentially important problem with rank (or instant-runoff) voting: a candidate who is broadly liked, who is everybody’s first or second choice, can get eliminated in the first round. I explain this here:

Atwood Pitches Approval Voting

Frank Atwood promoted “approval voting” at a recent Liberty On the Rocks event:

While I was skeptical of approval voting at first, Atwood convinced me that it’s a good idea — even better than the “instant runoff voting” I’ve previously praised.

What is approval voting? You the voter can vote for any number of candidates on the ballot for a given position. For example, in the last gubernatorial race, you could have voted for both Dan Maes and Tom Tancredo, rather than just one of those candidates.

Now, in fact, John Hickenlooper won more votes than Maes and Tancredo combined, so it’s hard to claim that either Maes or Tancredo “spoiled” the race for the other candidate. (Democrat Hickenlooper won 50.7 percent of the vote, lackluster Republican Maes won only 11.1 percent of the vote, and third-party Tancredo won 36.7 percent of the vote.) But let’s consider a realistic possibility of a third-party conservative “spoiling” the race for the Republican or a Green candidate “spoiling” the race for the Democrat, meaning that if the minor-party candidate were not in the race, enough votes would go to the major-party candidate to make the difference.

In such cases, approval voting would allow a voter to approve both a major and a minor party candidate. Let’s consider a hypothetical three-way race with 100 voters under the two scenarios:

Chickenpooper gets 48 votes.
Tancledo gets 38 votes.
Maze gets 14 votes.

Under the “winner take all” voting we currently use, Chickenpooper (who we’ll assume is the left-leaning candidate) is the winner.

Chickenpooper gets 48 votes.
Tancledo gets 49 votes.
Maze gets 25 votes.

In this scenario some voters are voting for both Tancledo and Maze (so the total number of votes cast exceeds 100), and Tancledo emerges victorious. In this case, whereas Maze otherwise would have “spoiled” the election for Tancledo, under approval voting people can vote for Maze and still allow Tancledo to win.

Of course, in the real recent election, many people thought Maes was a complete joke, so some might have preferred both Hickenlooper and Tancredo over Maes and voted accordingly.

I favor approval voting because it allows minor-party participation without creating the risk of “spoiled” elections.

Why do I now think approval voting is better than instant runoff voting? Approval voting is both easier to implement and less prone to quirks.

Under instant runoff voting, a voter may rank candidates. For example, a voter could have picked Maes first and Tancredo second. Then, assuming Maes again came in third, all the votes that ranked Maes first and Tancredo second would go to Tancredo.

But think about ranking candidates in the voting booth. On a paper ballot, one would either have to write in numbers for the rankings or mark a candidate for the same race in successive votes. Electronic voting would require successive votes. But this process would confuse a lot of voters. For example, a voter may not realize that a second-place vote is not required.

Approval voting is a lot easier to set up. A voter simply marks a bubble (or the equivalent) for as many candidates as desired. It’s easy to understand and easy to implement.

It is true that any system of voting is subject to possible quirks; today’s quite pronounced quirk is that a minor-party candidate can “spoil” a race. Either instant runoff voting or approval voting would be less quirky. But I think approval voting would be best of all.

The Wikipedia entry on instant runoff voting suggests a problem which I’ll illustrate with the following scenario:

Suppose Lefty Lou is a fire-breathing leftist who excites his base but genuinely frightens much of the citizenry; for 34 percent of voters Lou is the first choice candidate. Suppose Righty Rick is a social conservative and the first choice of 35 percent of voters. And suppose Centrist Cal, a war hero and former NFL quarterback, is liked by pretty much everybody but the first choice of only 31 percent. Cal is the clear second choice for everybody who more strongly prefers one of the other two candidates. Let’s say that, due to imprecise polling, every poll shows the candidates within the margin of error, so voters have little idea who will actually win.

If voters simply voted their first choice under a winner take all system, Rick would win. But of course people can vote strategically under a winner take all system. Cal can argue, “Look, I know many of you are tempted to vote for Lou or Rick, but if you do that, you’ll risk putting your least-favored candidate in office. So vote for me!” And such an appeal may very well work.

But consider what happens under instant runoff voting. Assuming people vote their preferences, Cal is eliminated in the first round, throwing the election to Rick, despite the fact that, for 100 percent of voters, Cal is either the first or second choice. That seems like a bad outcome.

Under approval voting, Cal would easily emerge as the victor.

Nor am I persuaded by the critics of approval voting. For example, FairVote offers the following scenario:

To illustrate how approval voting violates majority rule, consider a primary with 100 voters and two candidates liked by all voters. 99 voters choose to approve of both candidates even though slightly preferring the first candidate to the second. The 100th voter is a tactical voter and chooses to support only the second candidate. As a result, the second candidate wins by one vote, even though 99% of voters prefer the first candidate.

The first problem with this example is that it is totally unrealistic. In a race with only two candidates, most voters would pick between the two based on their preferences. If someone were truly ambivalent between two candidates, voting for neither would have the same effect as voting for both. If 99 voters truly preferred the first candidate, many or most of them would vote that way. Does this involve a certain amount of strategy? Yes. But every system of voting does. The difference is that approval voting is more likely to generate a winner most voters can live with.

Another significant problem with the example is that obviously the 100th voter prefers the second candidate. Let’s say 99 voters barely prefer the first candidate to the second, and therefore vote for both candidates, not really caring which one wins. But one voter truly loathes the first candidate and therefore votes only for the second. Why should the very strong preferences of the one voter not outweigh the nearly-nonexistent preferences of the 99? But again this scenario is so implausible that we can safely ignore it.

Of course, if every race had only two candidates, a winner take all system would be fine (and a voter could approve of neither candidate simply by not voting in that race). The entire point of approval voting is to handle races with more than two candidates and thereby prevent scenarios of “spoiled” races.

Frank Atwood is right: Colorado should adopt approval voting.

Time for Real Choices at the Ballot Box

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published November 12 by Grand Junction Free Press.

If you think our Senate race was exciting — and we were surprised that Ken Buck lost despite his series of gaffes and oddball positions — just consider the drama in Alaska.

Lisa Murkowski held the Senate seat as a Republican, yet Joe Miller beat her in the primary. So Murkowski launched a write-in campaign, and the election remained under review as we submitted this column.

A November 3 AP story by Becky Bohrer explains the scope of the problem. Murkowski “was among 160 qualified candidates,” and “write-ins held 41 percent of the vote with 99 percent of precincts reporting,” compared to Miller’s 34 percent.

And consider this bizarre twist: Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell told the AP “that since Miller’s name isn’t on the official list of write-in candidates, any ballots with ‘Joe Miller’ written in won’t be credited to” Miller. Campbell changed his tune the next day, and a follow-up AP story reported that write-ins for “Joe Miller” would count for Miller, after all.

The Alaska Senate election is a mess. But nobody ever promised that representative government would be easy. If we want tidy and easy then we should have a king or a dictator.

Even before the Seventeenth Amendment passed in 1913, changing election of Senators from state legislatures to the popular vote, the legislatures themselves were popularly elected. Members of the House always faced a popular vote.

Some years ago your senior author Linn lived in New Mexico and got involved in another important write-in campaign, this one for Joe Skeen.

Politics in New Mexico makes politics in Colorado and Alaska seem calm and peaceful. Many voters live on reservations, which largely retain sovereignty. Spanish culture remains strong in parts of New Mexico, and in the 1960s and 70s land grants protected by old U.S treaty fell under heated dispute.

Quite a few people from New York and New Jersey settled towns like Rio Rancho. Occasionally their friends and relatives from back home would ask if they used American money or had to exchange dollars for pesos. Those friends would have to be reminded that parts of New Mexico were culturally vibrant long before the British colonies took off.

Party lines often didn’t mean as much in New Mexico. Republicans often worked with Democrats. A lot of people were what Coloradans might think of as “Texas Democrats” — fiscal conservatives who would make some of the local Mesa County “conservatives” seem like flaming liberals.

Wikipedia offers a good summary of Skeen’s write-in campaign for Congress: “Throughout the 1970s, five-term Democratic Congressman Harold Runnels had been so popular that the GOP didn’t even put up a candidate against him in 1978 or 1980. Then, on August 5, 1980, Runnels died of cancer at the age of fifty-six. The state attorney general, a Democrat, announced that the Democrats could replace Runnels on the ballot but that it was too late for the Republicans to [add a candidate]. Republicans were outraged and rallied behind a write-in effort by Skeen, while the Democrats selected Governor Bruce King’s nephew, David King, over Runnels’ widow, Dorothy Runnels.”

Those critical of Governor King called his political move “nephewism” rather than nepotism.

After Dorothy Runnels launched her own write-in campaign, Skeen won the split vote with 38 percent of the total. Wikipedia adds that Skeen, buoyed by the popularity of Ronald Reagan, “was only the third person in U.S. history to be elected to Congress as a write-in candidate.” He served until announcing his retirement in 2002.

For those who fought for Skeen, this was a joyous and triumphant victory.

This year Colorado ballots offered the ability to write in candidates only for a few offices, and then only among officially recognized candidates. In many races voters could “choose” only a single candidate.

Statute 1-4-1102 specifies that an affidavit for a write-in candidate must be filed “by the close of business on the seventieth day before any other election” besides a primary. That’s ridiculous. What if an illness, death, or major scandal occurs within that time? What if, for instance, the Republican candidate for governor had imploded closer to the election?

On November 3, Lynn Bartels of the Denver Post reported that Kathleen Curry, a write-in candidate for House District 61 who previously held the seat as a Democrat, challenged a preliminary finding that she came in second. She claimed that voters who wrote in her name but didn’t check the nearby box would put her ahead if properly counted.

If we’re serious about letting voters select the candidates of their choice, we will let people easily file as write-in candidates right up to the election. And we will ensure those votes are properly tallied, even if it takes longer. Do we want speed and convenience, or do we want to let people vote their conscience?